A study by Artprice finds that the Chinese art market is the largest in the world — but only in terms of auctions. The misleading news bite is telling in other ways, though. The Chinese domestic auction market is growing so quickly in part because Western auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have failed to dominate even while the Chinese collector community has grown hugely.
The reason that the standard international auction houses haven’t been able to take full advantage of this growth is both because of Chinese government restrictions on the Western auction houses and difficulties adapting to the specifics of the Chinese market. The Chinese secondary market has the benefit of thousands of years of artifacts, treasures and art celebrities for auction fodder, and while contemporary art is popular in China, the work largely moves in the primary market, through commercial galleries.
This means a surplus of auction material and a downplaying of the market for living artists’ work as compared to the Western markets (particularly in the US). The primary market wasn’t counted in Artprice’s study, and thus China comes out totally on top. It’s looking like it’ll stay that way too, as Chinese auction houses like China Guardian and Poly Auctions, the equivalents of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, gain domestic traction that will be hard to shake.
Local operators are also better suited to acting in China’s admittedly harsh political climate. Take for an object lesson Christie’s troubles in auctioning off one of the 18th century bronze fountain heads originally from Beijing’s Summer Palace. Despite the fact that the auction house was selling the piece from the private collection of Yves Saint Laurent, Chinese buyers interfered with a sale that they felt was unjust and immoral — the piece should go back to China. Rest assured, China Guardian and Poly won’t have the same problems.